Thursday, April 8, 2010
I am back! From my adventure in Japan!
Yes, an ambition fulfilled – learning Japanese for over a year so I could ‘survive’ there (not that you need to learn the language to survive lol, but at least you don’t feel too out of your depth). Did learning the lingo help? Well, not really. Most people speak English there, my Japanese conversations were quite basic (because if you don’t know a key word for your sentence, you’re stuffed), whenever I tried speaking Japanese, the person would be too startled to understand me or they’d not understand my accent – and finally, I only knew about 20 Kanji, and since Kanji is everywhere and there are thousands of them, that wasn’t so good!
The holiday was great! A bit stressful at first, as the Post Office lost the currency I ordered, so I had to sort that out while I needed to pack. The flight was long and tedious (how anyone can watch the flight map for 12 hours is beyond me – like watching paint dry), and then when I got to Osaka I had to wait another couple of hours for my connecting flight to Tokyo (where I was the only white person on the flight).
Finally got to Tokyo and everyone was so helpful. A guard tried to help me get my Pasmo card (like an Oyster card) but I got flustered and my brain crashed and I couldn’t cope with the exchange rate details and figure out how much I needed.
Then straight to the subway where I made my own queue – didn’t realize you have to queue on the marked lines! My map didn’t cover the suburbian rail stops so I pestered a ‘salaryman’ for about 12 stops… “is this Shinagawa?” … “Is this Shinagawa?” etc…
Tokyo was incredible – just so lively and exciting. I loved Shinjuku and Shibuya (the crossing). The Ryokan we stayed in was cute – and our first introduction to sleeping on futons and taking shoes off, plus the Japanese bathing experience (shower and clean before getting into the bath, water stays in bath all day, bath is just for relaxation).
Next we were off to Hiroshima – we took the bullet train, even though I didn’t realize we were on one – I didn’t think it was part of our rail ticket. Got there late afternoon, just enough time to head to the peace park and museum which were all amazing and shocking. Next day off to nearby island of Miyajima, with a mountain climb, wild deer and beautiful temples.
Then off to Koyosan, where we stayed in a temple with monks – amazing. Had to meditate with them in the evening and get up at 6am for chanting. After dinner, a lovely 90 year old lady – the widow of the former head monk – gave us a speech all about the history of the area. It snowed in Koyosan – it was so atmospheric – and amazing experience.
Then traveled to Kyoto, where I lost my travel buddy at the station oops, but found him later. Explored Kyoto the next day – we got a bit temple-d out. Was a bit disappointed by Kyoto – which is weird since it’s supposed to be the number one place in Japan – maybe I was just not in the right frame of mind for it. Next day, off to Nara which I loved – amazing sights and temples. It was also my birthday and I decided to have my birthday meal at McDonalds, as I was getting so bored of rice and watery food and generally not knowing what I was eating or how to eat it.
Caught the manga museum in Kyoto which was fun, loads of people hanging around just reading.
Then back to Tokyo – staying at a capsule hotel, which was hooorrrrible. Really seedy area (although still had a good time, drinking beer), and just so many regulations in the place. Got kicked out at 10am so we explored the fish market, the parks and generally were homeless for the day lol. Then down to our penultimate Ryokan in south Tokyo, very quiet/dead suburbs. Next day a day trip to Fuji which was fab, mainly because of the excellent company on the coach. Then to the Ghibli Museum which was fun and imaginative and it was great to see the kids enjoying themselves, plus we saw a great exclusive mini movie. Nice surprise was exploring the neighbouring parks – gorgeous. Then off back to my favourite areas, Shinjuku and Shibuya – love them.
Final day was spent with two of my travel buddy’s friends, and they took us to a less touristy part of Tokyo, Nippori. In fact, two Japanese girls asked to have their photo taken with the two white men in the station! Had a nice day and it was nice to see all the cherry blossom and the families picnicking and enjoying themselves.
Then off to our final night ‘posh hotel’, the Park Hotel Tokyo. It was gorgeous… Amazing views of the city… I couldn’t drag myself away from them to go to bed. Felt a bit weird about staying there though… Felt that people who only stay are missing out a bit. Part of it is trying to muddle your way through different adventures and communication challenges. Final memories are of the Park Hotel staff bowing to our coach as we headed to the airport - aw.
Anyway, I made a list of my top 10 lasting impressions of Japan…
1. Face masks
Creepy! Even on the plane to Japan, the Japanese people were wearing them. It wouldn’t be so bad, but the people wearing them looked really weird! Like something from J-horror movies. It was so odd to see people wearing them. It really put you on your guard – are they ill? What if I get ill – should I wear one? You enter a subway all happy, and then you see facemasks on people and think ‘omg have they got the plague…?’ And yet, I found out that apparently people wear them to protect themselves from hay fever.
2. Heated toilet seats!
An amazing invention, especially when you’re staying in a freezing cold temple in the mountains…!
I loved bowing and nodding to random people I met in the street. It's a very mature, respectful society.
What I love about Japanese people is the respect they give out and the self-respect they have for themselves. Even at the Hiroshima museum, I was so touched that these people were forced to surrender and I feel they have an incredible dignity.
I also loved the attitude to work - people seemed to care for you as a customer and to be as helpful as possible. In the UK, we tend to get a bit surly, and I think it's made me look at the way I work, personally.
5. Getting out of train stations
Getting out of train stations in Japan is impossible. Completely impossible. It is so confusing… I lost my mate in one once… And another time, we took the wrong exit and it took us 20 minutes to walk to where we needed to be – all the way around the building.
6. The trains
The trains were great. The Shinkansen was so comfy. The subway was clean and lovely and had plenty of helpful messages. I love how you have to form lines to get on the subway (I didn’t realize this at first and formed my own line oops). I love the size of the carriages and the peacefulness – okay, maybe not at rush hour, when it is CRAZY.
Also I love the practical side of the overground trains. How you can swivel or push the seats to face the other way. And the heated seats! UK trains can learn a lot!!
7. The people
I loved the people. They’re not as shy as you’d think. Sometimes we’d be standing for 2 minutes a little confused about where to go, but someone would just come straight up to us and offer to not just help, but take us right to where we needed to be.
The kids are adorable too – I laughed so much at the Ghibli museum. It’s so nice to see them before, I guess, stricter discipline comes into their lives and they lose their cheeky edge. In a weird way, I think I have the same sense of humour as Japanese kids lol.
The TV was a bit silly, but there were some amazing programmes scattered around. I love how anime is shown at random times and I really got into the baseball. My fave though was one of those ‘Takashi’s Castle’ types of programmes. It starts off as a bit of a joke, but soon in the later stages, the contestants really have to be athletic. And the show was on pretty much all evening! So absorbing.
Shopping is great in Japan – I loved Tower Records and HMV where it’s actually an experience – you get to immerse yourselves in full promotional sections for bands and really try them out. Makes me miss record shops in England.
I love it when you enter a restaurant or shop and they shout out Irreshaimase – ‘welcome’. My favourite was an Italian restaurant where all the chefs ALL shouted it out when someone entered and then waved goodbye when we left. Some cynical guy said it was just a marketing gimmick and maybe it is, but I loved it all the same. It can’t all have been fake!!